Somika Basu maps out the nuanced dishes that define a Bengali meal as she takes us on a culinary tour of meals from her childhood.
“What do you think is the most difficult thing to cook?,” my grandmother asked.
I pictured the profusion of delicacies that had emerged from her Kolkata kitchen and imagined that it might be the intricate, layered daab chingri – prawns baked in a tender coconut; or perhaps it could be the rich and robust kosha mangsho, succulent lamb falling off the bone; surely it was the laboriously assembled triangles of pulipithe – soft dough stuffed with grated coconut, jaggery and thick cream, simmered in milk reduction and flavoured with cardamom… She finally revealed that it was the ever deceptive, seemingly simple, steamed white rice.
To get the perfect dekchi of rice: after setting the pot to boil for just the right amount of time, one must completely drain the excess starch and ensure that the grains are unbroken, separate, cooked through, aromatic, light and tasty. My mother laughs about how she herself struggled with this onerous expectation as a new bride, secretly disposing in the garden her failed attempts of overcooked (the onomatopoeic description in Bengali being ‘patch-patch’) rice that she felt wouldn’t pass muster at her in-laws’ table.
One thing I’ve learnt from observing many nibashi and probashi (resident and non-resident) Bengalis, is that rice is central to the enjoyment of a meal. To drive home this point, it should be noted that Bangla is probably one of the few languages with two different words for raw and cooked rice – chaal and bhaat. A vessel of freshly made bhaat, steam curling upwards from the fluffy white grains, is the cue to quickly find one’s place at the table.
The food I have the good fortune of taking for granted – hearty garden vegetable khichudi topped with a generous dollop of ghee in the monsoon, the summery shukto with its medley of bitters, the omnipresent yet versatile maacher jhol, the humble yet decadent mishti doi yogurt sweetened with date palm jaggery – reveals itself as quite distinctive; never really featuring in Indian restaurants abroad, which have come to be defined by their polarised North and South menus.
Bengal’s location within the Ganges delta – a land intricately veined with rivers - means that anthropologically, fish is the dominant protein. A distinct culinary tradition emerged based on the availability of local ingredients. Bengalis are somewhat unique in that there is remarkable similarity in eating styles across social strata. In most parts of the Indian subcontinent, castes and communities have their particular food habits, but this is not true of Bengal. Even the Bengali Brahmin found the flavour of sweet water fish irresistible, calling it the 'fruit of the ocean' and thereby alleviating any guilt of such an indulgence.
It is well known that every self-respecting Bengali man must bring back the best fish for his household. An early morning walk through the fish market is always an entertaining excursion. The market is stocked with an overwhelming selection, the most recognisable being rohu, pabda (butterfish), bhetki (barramundi), magur (catfish), catla (carp), freshwater prawns and the treasured hilsa. I would navigate the bazaar with my grandfather, our family’s expert fish selector, stopping to quiz each maachwala on the day’s catch, invariably followed by a spirited argument between them both about the price. We’d encounter several varieties of fish literally jumping out of their containers. If my grandmother was pleased with our pickings, she would exclaim over lunch that the rohu nearly leapt from the kadai as she attempted to fry it. To this day, I believe her because I had indeed felt our purchases thrashing their tails in the grocery bag on our walk home!
While the bhadralok is always game for a healthy debate, the position of hilsa in the hierarchy of fishes is uncontested. In fact, the ilish is so special, events and feasts are known to be cancelled due to its unavailability. The prized fish is so delectable (believed to have absorbed the taste of freshwater during its arduous journey upstream) that when fried, the oil soaks up some of this flavour too. Not to let this go to waste, the fish fry is served with a bowl of this oil on the side of plain rice.
It bears mention that pure golden mustard oil, the cooking medium, also serves as a versatile accompaniment. It lends a characteristic jhaanj – a delicate sting that travels from the tongue to the nostrils without the customary heat of chillies. It is this jhaanj that elevates even a serving of mashed potatoes and rice to the status of a fulfilling meal. This humble combination, drizzled with the pungent oil, accompanied by a fresh green chilli and a boiled egg, is a strong contender for the title of the ultimate Bengali comfort food. In fact, this simplicity is indicative of the overall culinary philosophy of Bengal – that just a few components, coupled for balance, create a satisfying meal which celebrates the ingredients, rendering any additional spices as unnecessary – overpowering even.
This attitude is replicated in more elaborate dining as well. Each dish is eaten separately with rice so that the individual flavours can be enjoyed. Bengalis are ceremonious about the method and order in which the food is served and eaten. The flow of flavours of a Bengali meal begins with a bitter course and finishes with decadent, milk-based sweets.
Before a traditional meal, the banana leaves are prepared with a pinch of salt and a wedge of gandharaj lebu (dark green fragrant lime) in the corner.
A standard first course comprises a small portion of bitter vegetables, commonly the korola or uchhe (forms of the much-spurned bitter gourd) or tender neem leaves. In our kitchen, the leaves were fried to crisps and made mandatory for everyone, especially children, and we’d compete to finish these dishes that are believed to be medicinal (and certainly tasted the part). My grandmother would cleverly mix the dreaded bitter gourd with beetroot and potato, dicing them into tiny slivers, so that the resultant crispy confetti had a pleasing balance of colour and taste – the bitters tempered with the sweetness of beet and potato fries. This acquired appreciation of sharp bitterness is a Bengali trait that outsiders often find incomprehensible.
Another unique Bengali bitter is the mixture of vegetables in a light sauce called shukto, usually associated with the oppressive summers of the region. It is a complex dish made of neem, bitter gourd, brinjal, potatoes, radish and green bananas, with spices like turmeric, ginger, mustard and radhuni (celery seed) pastes; layered but light, it is a critical indication of one’s expertise in the kitchen.
The daal course is usually the most substantial, eaten with a generous portion of rice and maybe some fried aubergines and fried potol (pointed gourd) split lengthwise, and some kurkure aalu bhaaja (crunchy fried potatoes) as accompaniments. This in itself qualifies as a satisfying meal, with every household having its own variation of lentil based on preference and even the season - the heavier daals with caramelised onions and ghee are reserved for winters and monsoon, whereas a light red lentil daal seasoned with nothing but black mustard seeds, a single quartered tomato and a slit green chilli is my family’s favourite summer go-to.
Another culinary trait that cuts across social classes is resourcefulness, the ‘spare parts’ of vegetables and fish being incorporated into every dish. Peels, roots, and even the bits of fish that usually get thrown out often find themselves in starring roles in torkari (vegetable) dishes. Almost every part of the fish is relished, the head in particular considered as a delicacy.
One of my favourite, and in my opinion the most underrated, Bengali delicacies is posto or poppy seed paste. I can never be sure if it is the natural property of the posto or the delicate preparation of it which makes this so addictive. A simple dish of aalu-posto, sometimes coupled with ridge gourd, almost always encourages an indulgent afternoon nap. Curtains drawn and fan whirring overhead, what better way to give in to a soporific food stupor in the heat of summer.
Chaatni (literally meaning ‘to lick’) is the syrupy course towards the end of a meal wherein one can see the origin of the word revealed before one’s eyes – fingers are licked clean of the tangy sweet flavours – usually made from fruits like raw mango, tamarind, or tomatoes, in a combination of whole spices. Chutney is also a move closer towards the dessert course, acting as a palate cleanser or the equivalent of a spicy sorbet, if you will.
After waking from our mid-day sleep, the order of business was to discuss what we could eat as it approached tea time. Possibly the most significant British influence on Bengal's culinary habits has been the ritual of tea, which is now central to the Bengali identity. Bengalis can be quite fussy about this seemingly innocuous time pass. As a drink, it must be infused for just the right amount of time, only then will milk or sugar be added. As a practice, tea time is accompanied by a generous stream of snacks – shingara, chops, and cutlets – a throwback to the days of the British raj, and merely a warm up for dinner!
Today, whenever I attempt to replicate my grandmother's and mother's recipes, I am transported back in time, engulfed by the smells and tastes of Bengal. With my legs dangling from the dining table chair, I’d try to guess what form the morning’s fish would appear in – a pointless exercise because we would be surprised every time. My grandmother says that a fish can be cooked in 108 different ways and, if my ‘research’ thus far is anything to go by, this may very well be true.
Words and photographs by Somika Basu, a creative consultant for cultural and social development institutions. Stalk her on Instagram here.
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